Posts Tagged 'Oscars'

Top 10 Films of 2010

Happy Oscar Sunday everyone!!! Just in time to close out 2010 with my Top 10 Films of the year. That this was not the greatest year for movies is certainly not to say that there weren’t some absolutely wonderful films. By and large, the bigger movies underwhelmed while the moderately-budgeted auteur projects really delivered the goods. Here’s to hoping the studios take note and provide funding accordingly. Before I get to my list, a few housekeeping notes:

Movies I Didn’t See: Rabbit Hole; Another Year; Barney’s Version; The Illusionist; Mother; Somewhere

Movies That Are WAY Overrated:  The Kids Are All Right; The Town; The Ghost Writer; A Prophet

Honorable Mentions: 127 hours, Blue Valentine; Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; The Last Exorcism; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1; The King’s Speech; Winter’s Bone

-TOP 10-

10. Black Swan

We start off in murky waters. The screenplay for the film is a mess. There’s the whole idea, for starters, that the descent into madness is an almost solely sexual one for women. I found it a little condescending and it seemed like the psycho-sexual elements – in particular Nina’s lesbian dream (which was okay yes all right very super totally sexy-and-a-half) – didn’t really amount to much in terms of propelling her further along the downward spiral. And yet. Natalie Portman’s performance is fearless. The ballet is majestic and rigorous and painful. And director Darren Aronofsky, in the same bloody water from “The Wrestler,” creates a complete picture of this dual world. In reality he shows us the cracks and groans and aches of the performers’ bodies, the routine of breaking in their shoes, and the design of the heightened sound of Portman’s breathing really highlights the physical toll. Then there are all of the subtle effects on Nina’s body: her rash, the hair, her eyes, the rippling scales, the creepy visions and eventually, with Clint Mansell’s brilliant score, her transformation. Some people interpret the film to suggest certain characters didn’t exist or that Nina, herself, may have been a figment of someone else. I’ve only seen the film once, but I didn’t take that away. To me, it shows a single-minded pursuit of perfection at any cost. Beyond that, I think the speculation devolves into sortof conspiracy theories.

9. Iron Man 2/ Tron: Legacy

Most of the major action efforts by studios this year were bland and uninspired, and I know plenty who felt that way about both of these movies. I thought the action was top notch, from the hand-to-hand battles in “Iron Man 2” to the etherial light-cycle sequence in “Tron: Legacy.” And both had plots that engaged me. Most sequels settle for wall-to-wall action, but both of these took their time and provided opportunities for talented actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges to do some fascinating, if curious character work. And call me a sucker, but the father/son storyline worked really well in “Tron.”

Neither movie bends our expectations so far that we’re in an arthouse movie (although there was some opportunity for it in both, actually), but neither did they insult our intelligence. They could have painted-by-numbers, instead they took some chances, showed some ambition. That goes a long way with me.

8. Shutter Island/Inception

This is the second and final tie on the list. What an interesting double-feature Leonardo DiCaprio offered this year. He plays essentially the same character in both films, struggling internally to make amends with a disturbing personal tragedy that refuses to change no matter what orchestrations he creates. In both he creates a world steeped in his regret and pain, and in both there are disastrous consequences. DiCaprio is perhaps the best actor of generation at conveying anguish. You see it registered over every inch of his face, in his posture, in the way he half-chews when nothing is in his mouth. It would be too big and dramatic if it weren’t also so true; and when he finds stillness, it can be powerful and unsettling.

For my money, “Shutter Island” is the better film, for its additional thematic concerns about men-of-violence and for the way its climax doesn’t sidestep the character’s past, but allows him to relive it and see it as it truly was for the first time. “Inception” still has those themes, but I’m more impressed with it as a piece of action-filmmaking. The hotel sequence with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is probably the most purely exciting thing I’ve seen all year. The numerous layers of reality are interesting, but ultimately, there is a wide gaping hole at the end of the film that goes unexplained. A double bill with a movie each from Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, both of which leave viewers asking all sorts of questions afterwards, has to be recognized.

7. Dogtooth

A small Greek film from director Giorgos Lanthimos, the plot is spare and upsetting. A husband and wife have confined their three teenage children to their home for their entire lives. A fourth sibling has been created and the children are told he lives over the fence, due to disobedience. The father works at a nearby factory, where he occasionally brings home a woman to have sex with his son. The parents teach their children incorrect meanings for words. Why? Are they afraid they will escape? Are they deliberately cruel? The children are aware of television as an invention, but the only thing they see are their own home movies. When their mother uses the telephone, they wonder why she is talking to herself. The film raises all sorts of questions about parenting and those qualities which are inherent within us versus those that are learned. How does the notion to deceive occur? What about to dominate? What about to lie? What about basic spatial relationships that seem obvious? Do they seem obvious because they’ve been reinforced or because they are naturally evident? In addition to the slow burn of tension and hostility, what makes “Dogtooth” remarkable is that it never explains itself. It simply shows characters behaving. Apart from that, we’re forced to draw our own conclusions.

6. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Now a film that seems to telegraph its perspective for us but maybe doesn’t after all. I love the story of Thierry Guerta, the Frenchman who can’t help but document everything he sees and accidentally gets hooked up with the street artist Shepherd Fairy, who lets him tag along…everywhere. The footage following around street artists as they tag different spots around Los Angeles and the country and then abroad has a fantastic energy to it. Exuberance might be the right word. And while I buy Banksy’s LA show with the elephant and the celebrities, and I see the footage from Disneyland, am I really supposed to buy that Guerta put down his camera to make art himself? And if he did, and if during that time Banksy was back in London, then who picked up the camera to film? And why? There are negative implications about street art as a skill if Guerta really was able to create his own 2008 show. There are even more negative implications if none of that art was his and the whole thing was a sortof joke by Banksy, Shepherd Fairy and the other artists; a joke at the expense of their own audience, except that from their perspective, the audience may have gotten too big – or more accurately too commercialized – anyway, which means that pissing off dumb people you don’t want to buy your art will almost surely result in those that remain feeling an inflated sense of personal connection to the art, thereby possibly making them more likely to purchase more of it; which of course, starts the entire process of commercialization all over again. This movie will either sound exhilarating or exhausting. I found it fascinating and hilarious.

5. True Grit

The Coen Brothers don’t make prestige films and they don’t make standard genre pictures. And yet “True Grit” turned out to be both in a way, but only there’s nothing standard about anything they make. Some felt this was Coens-lite. I disagree. Every one of their major thematic concerns and motifs is represented in the film (blunt, brutal violence; the personal cost of seeking vengeance; the boundless, inventive dialogue; the odd one-scene characters) as well as the stark beauty of the landscapes captured by longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Most of all, there are three brilliant performances in Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon (who deserved a nomination much more than Jeremy Renner), and, in my favorite performance from the entire year, Hailie Steinfeld. She commands the screen at every moment, and she is so fierce – as when she unblinkingly forges a river on her horse – that I felt silly for not realizing the title is just as much about her as Rooster Cogburn. The Coens don’t play safe and they don’t cheat the consequences of their characters’ actions. Sometimes that comes at the expense of an emotional investment in their characters and results in a sortof detached bemusement. “True Grit” seems like it should fall into that same trap. The reason it doesn’t is Hailie Steinfeld.

4. The Fighter

Now my favorite male performance of the year, which belongs to Christian Bale as Dickey Eklund, the cracked out ex-boxer who can’t seem to let go of his past glory. Is he really so oblivious to his own deterioration? To the squalor around him? The recognition of those things in Bale is what makes his depiction transcendent; in fact, that’s what makes “The Fighter” so surprising as a whole. Who needs another boxing movie, was my thought going into the theater. You expect family issues and big fights and to feel like you’ve seen it all before. I don’t know why I didn’t have more initial faith in David O. Russell, a director who’s never made a movie I dislike. He finds the truth in each moment and doesn’t settle for easy resolutions like getting rid of your family for you girlfriend or turning your back on people who cause you pain. Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams (like you’ve never seen her before) lead the strongest ensemble of the year. There is a scene late in the film on Adams’ character’s porch, where she and Bale have to come to an understanding. It is confrontational and angry and you can see both actors putting themselves totally on the line. You expect soft sentiment and easy answers from the scene. What it gives you is a picture of brokenness trying to change; to turn and be mended.

3. The Social Network

For most movies, it would be a bad thing if the opening scene was the best in the movie, but somehow David Fincher’s “The Social Network” manages to feel like such a true extension of that scene (the perfect combination of exposition, character, and theme) that it all works. You see how deeply Zuckerberg’s ambition is rooted in pain. Every aspect is firing on all cylinders. Aaron Sorkin’s script is a technical marvel. Jesse Eisenberg (so deserving of his nomination, good for him!) and the other actors inhabit the roles, Trent Reznor’s score is diabolically good, and Fincher’s direction folds them all together in a way that leaves you breathless. How many amazing sequences does the film contain? My favorite is the Facemash sequence, where Zuckerberg first gets people’s attention. The way the film intercuts different scenes to create a simultaneous stream of dramatic action is like nothing I’ve seen before. I don’t think it’ll win Best Picture this year, but I think it will be remembered much longer than the film that does.

2. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

 

Another double feature would be “The Social Network” and this movie. Both about pop culture, both endlessly inventive structurally, and you’ve got the Michael Cera/Jesse Eisenberg connection. I don’t know why “Scott Pilgrim” was so universally overlooked and underrated when it came out, but the film remains my favorite comedy of the year. Edgar Wright incorporates the breakneck pacing and tone of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” with the more personal stories from “Spaced.” This movie is so good it’s humbling. How many directors can have a three-joke sequence just using framing? From epic fights to hilarious characters to more on-screen cultural iconography than you can fend off without having to Continue – all the while maintaining a sense of story and theme and character that (far from being displaced) are enhanced by the visual style – this is the coolest movie of the year.

1. Toy Story 3

The fact that I wasn’t that interested in seeing the latest from Pixar only reinforces how shockingly good the final act of the trilogy was. What can I say about it? The opening reminded me of the hours I spent as a kid playing with action figures in my room. It shows the nexus of the numerous creative impulses. That’s what people like me saw in their mind. What an astounding character Woody is! Look at his dedication to get back to Andy, in whom he has unwavering faith, combined with his unrelenting love for his friends and his refusal to let them be hurt, even after they’ve hurt him. The fact that you know Woody will stop at nothing, and that his insistence is born from love and goodness, makes his moment of resignation in the film’s climax the most emotionally arresting thing I saw on film all year. There is something inexpressibly beautiful about the way they take each other’s hands, about the looks they share with each other. I’m telling you, it made my heart stop. It is a profound thing to reach the absolute brink of your ability as a creation. No other movie displayed that kind of looking-into-the-abyss moment like “Toy Story 3” did. For all its invention and humor and excitement and joy (the epilogue is heart-rending in its own way), that moment in the incinerator when we see Woody’s eyes change makes “Toy Story 3” the best film of the year.

Visual Stimuli

Quick movie-related bits to get back into the swing of blogging:

–Two trailers for next summer movies: “Green Lantern” looks good, not great, we’ll have to wait to see how it’s executed. Ryan Reynolds is earning his paycheck, but anyone want to tell me why we need Blake Lively in this thing Blake Lively-ing it up? Jon Favreau doesn’t like time off, and “Cowboys & Aliens” looks mega-kickass. You see how it’s not winking at us in its purely Western moments? How it doesn’t feel anything at all in any way even just a little bit like “Jonah Hex”? How it’s got James Bond and Indiana Jones in it? And Aliens! I’m excited.

–Double Sequel Movie Day – “Toy Story 3” again at second-run theater [aside from all its other brilliance, do you see how it is in many ways about the writers and creators using their new computer toys to visually remember – and render – what it was like to play with their tangible, childhood toys? Pixar=Meta-brilliance] and right down the street, midnight showing of “Harry Potter 7.1″ aka ‘ ” ” and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1,’ which contains my favorite moment (SPOILERS!!!), rendered very nicely, in which Ron defeats one of the horcruxes (-cruxi?) and in so doing, his own worst fear. Great story-telling, I enjoyed the pacing even if I thought some of the more suspenseful sequences could have been handled better. They placed a lot of trust in the three leads, and they handled it excellently. I’m already giddy to see Part 2!

–The Coen Brothers have their remake of “True Grit” coming out, and I just noticed the tagline on their four character posters: “Punishment Comes One Way or Another.” It’s remarkably similar to their 2007 Oscar-wining film, “No Country For Old Men,” whose tagline similarly encouraged: “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming.” Also a western. Also an adaptation. Also about people trying to hunt down Josh Brolin. The stories are quite different, but the territory is the same. [Also exciting: the trailer tells us the film comes out at Christmas, and the word it offers to cement this is “Retribution.” As a Christian, I’m wondering aloud, here: too soon?]

–Speaking of Oscars, my-oh-my what an off-year we have here for movies. Some gems: “Toy Story 3,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” [RENT IT!] and “The Social Network.” And a few key late releases like the Coens’ film and also “The King’s Speech,” “127 Hours,” “Somewhere,” “Blue Valentine,” “Another Year,” “Black Swan” and “The Fighter.” Still, that’s not a large crop from which to choose. My guesses, very early in the game: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress all go to “The King’s Speech” and maybe also Original Screenplay. Director, Adapted Screenplay, and a few other tech awards [cinematography, editing] go to “The Social Network.” Actress to Annette Bening for “The Kids Are All Right” [and for surviving two losses to Hilary Swank] and the film may also get Original Screenplay. Much of this is up in the air, of course, and some of the buzz for “The King’s Speech” could die down if it’s not as brilliant as the early word or if some other film gains momentum. So I really don’t even hardly stand by what I’ve said, except but conjecture is fun for me right about now. If I had my would-rathers, “Toy Story 3” would be much higher on the list.

–Just as an announcement, you can purchase my short film, “Reservations” for a mere $5 here, and I encourage you to do so. The money barely covers all shipping and printing, but the point is that I’d like people to see the film. I’m actually very proud of it. The performances are good, it’s funny, and it’s well-made. There’s even a commentary track discussing the film, if you’re into that sort of thing.

–Finally…writing: I finished a draft of the feature length version of “Trailer: The Movie,” and immediately set to work on the treatment, which meant I also quickly began seeing story, character, and pacing flaws. While conceptually very sound, the scale can still increase a bit more. The second and third act are too similar, the character arcs, and along with them the satire, can be pushed much further. It’s funny, I prefer a lot of chaos in the third act, but what was written was pretty tame. Outlining has become my new best friend. I set up a marker board on an easel next to the computer, divided into blocks that have the broad story beats and specific sequences broken down. It’s a clear, helpful way to get ideas out of my head and onto something I look at and examine. It helps to literally see the flow of the story from one scene to another. And because I love lists, it also fosters even more creativity. I’m also being more disciplined with myself. It’s easy to read books and watch movies [and write blogs] and never get down to business and go, “Well, I have so many ideas, but shucks I just never seem to write them down.” Gone are the days of letting myself off the hook. I sit down, turn off my phone and get to work. Sometimes the pages come fast and easy, sometimes I spent almost all the time outlining, but the time and energy are focussed in the right direction either way. It’s the difference between thinking about doing something and moving toward a goal.

Incidentally, I’ve also been reading about Michael de Luca, who was the head of New Line Studios when he was my age, making films like “Seven” and “Boogie Nights” when no one else would. Eesh. Talk about putting things into perspective.

The Best Films of 2009

The Oscars are over. The awards have gone to whom they have gone, deserved or no. I enjoyed the ceremony quite a lot, especially Neil Patrick Harris’ dance #, which recaptured the elegance and style of the Oscars, but also the fantastic comedy provided by co-hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. The Best Speech of the night was probably Sandra Bullock’s, even though I didn’t like her performance. Michael Giacchino, who won for Best Original Score (“UP”) gave the most heartfelt, about the need as children and young artists to be encouraged to create. Once again, the Best Actor and Best Actress categories involved introductory speeches about each nominee from another entertainer. I love this practice, the Academy should continue it.

And even though 2009 was not history’s best year at the movies, it’s still like every other year. Not everyone who deserves to be recognized will be recognized. Frustratingly decent films are lauded as masterpieces (ahem), but will be forgotten in a few years, when much better films couldn’t even wrangle a nomination.  Some films are too big to be ignored and have found their way onto my list along with nearly everyone else’s. Part of me used to feel guilty and want to apologize for not having discovered 10 unheard-of masterpieces to unleash to the world. Now I’m just content with finding as many great movies every year as I can. I’ve chosen my 10. They may look different than yours. I hope we can still be friends. I’m okay with that if you are. There’s a few big ones missing from my list, and I’ll just cop to them now. I didn’t love “The Hurt Locker” or “Precious” or “Crazy Heart” as much as the rest of the world did. I skipped “Julie and Julia” and “Invictus” even though they’re probably pretty good. I had no interest in seeing “The Blind Side,” went anyway, and was punished accordingly for my $13 sin. Even the popcorn tastes bad when you’re watching that movie. I forgot to see “Nine,” and I’m mostly okay with that.

Here’s my list. See what you think. Prepare to judge and be judged:

#10 - The Informant

10. The Informant! – Directed by Steven Soderbergh (who does about 5 movies a year, usually all great), starring Matt Damon, this is the story of the Vice-President for a major agricultural corporation turned whistle-blower for the FBI regarding international, multi-corporation, industry-wide price fixing during the 1990’s. That’s the simplified version. The film comes at its subject in two ways that make it uniquely enthralling. First, it approaches the material as a comedy. With an overbright retro visual style and a great score by Marvin Hamlisch, Matt Damon’s bumbling Mark Whitacre is the world’s worst secret-agent, if anybody had just realized to look in front of them. The comedy comes from the way powerful people assume both that they are untouchable and that the people around them are as greedy as they are. Which Whitacre is. But he’s also something neither his company, nor the FBI bargained for: a pathological liar. The film places us inside his mind throughout the film, which invites us into the madness. “The Informant” is a painfully funny movie. Which one of those words you think describes it better will tell you a lot about yourself.

#9 - No Impact Man

9. No Impact Man – Do you want to change the world? Colin Beavan thought so too, but he regretted it later. The lone documentary on my list,  this follows Beavan, a writer looking for a book to write and wondering how much difference one person can make for the environment. Those two things mix together and create the thrust for the film, which follows Beavan, his wife and daughter as they seek to literally have a carbon foot-print of ZERO for an entire year. No waste. No electricity. No spending. No luxuries. We see them having their last Starbucks, turning off their electricity, making a compost heap, trying out an old-fashioned refrigeration idea of a “pot in a pot.” Did I mention they live in Manhattan?Filmed with energy efficient methods, the movie engages us in the way the family grows together through the struggle to live this way for a year. The failures and setbacks and annoyances of dis-comfort. The vilification of Beavan and off-handed dismissal of his project from almost every corner of his life. This could have been one of the snobbiest movies ever made. Instead, it’s honest and sweet and kindof funny. What they learn about being energy efficient is fine and well and important, but the real story is what they learn about their family.

#8 - An Education

8. An Education – A smart, independent school-girl falls in love with an older man and learns life-lessons by the end in the most boorish-sounding movie on this list. But it’s not. Written by novelist Nick Hornby, this movie is much smarter and more sly than you’d think. We follow Jenny, who’s one of those beautiful girls we were too afraid to talk to in high school. She’s smart, but she seems to have more important things to do than school. Carey Mulligan plays her perfectly. She’s so sure of herself, and she makes decisions instead of letting others make them for her. She is active in her life, which causes hell for her father (played brilliantly by Alfred Molina) and attracts David (Peter Sarsgaard). Molina inhabits a role that is usually a non-entity in the story, but here is given the screen-time to present an important counter-argument for the attitude his daughter has. She doesn’t understand him, just as much he doesn’t understand her; just as much as she doesn’t really understand all sorts of things she thought she did. Seeing all of those things in young Carey Mulligan’s eyes is as breathtaking as the way the camera observes her. Makes sense it was directed by a woman.

#7 - Where the Wild Things Are

7. Where the Wild Things Are – Few movies make me feel like a kid again, but this one did. I was enamored from the very first frame with the spirit of young Max. He is ferocious and rough and completely alive. Co-writer, director Spike Jonze is all those things too, and the sensibility saturates the screen. For once in a kid’s film, you can feel the danger, when Max travels to a remote land, encounters large beasts, Wild Things, and becomes their king for a while. He’ll have to go home, of course, but you know that already. The movie has a powerful range of emotions that mix and clash and become symbols of Max’s personal life in ways that are always clear but never simple. Some parents didn’t think their kids could handle the movie. If your child has ever thrown a tantrum so bad you wanted to bury them alive, they’re old enough to see this movie. For the rest of us, we can see visualized on screen what it felt like to be a kid. For me, it was an overwhelming, magical experience.

#6 - The White Ribbon

6. The White Ribbon – In a small German town just before World War I, strange things are happening. A wire is mysteriously placed between two trees, making the doctor’s horse fall and seriously injuring the man. A woman falls down a shaft at the mill. A young boy is kidnapped. Crops are destroyed. Who is doing these things? Is it a group of kids? Is it angry workers, raging against the few pillars of the community?  Michael Haneke’s film is as much about the physical acts as their emotional, psychological motivations and consequences. How do you assign blame to an entire community? What is most impressive is the way Haneke sidesteps simple answers and easy targets. Almost everyone in the town has secrets, but this doesn’t make them completely evil. When we don’t have all the facts, how do we know what was an intentional act and what was a random accident? It’s easy to assume the work of an evil, plotting mastermind. It’s more comfortable to us. And Germany certainly had one around that time. Yes, but what were the people doing all the while? Haneke is often criticized for the bleakness of his films, and while it’s not exactly a jaunty film, there is a measure of hope that Haneke instills into the proceedings. Even if hope cannot thrive, it still lives in the spaces between things.

#5 - AVATAR

5. Avatar – Yes, that “Avatar.” Lookit, if you (I, rather) want complex political material, just look at #4. If you (I, once again) want a sweeping melodrama with a simple story but powerful, moving imagery than surpasses any need for brilliant dialogue and ushers in an entirely new cinematic movement and makes you (me) for the first time ever in your (my) life say the words “You HAVE to see it in IMAX 3-D,” then this is your movie. My movie. It is, hands-down, my favorite experience of going to the movies this year. I was enamored with the visual brilliance, I cared about the characters, I loved watching them fall in love. Anyone not watching this movie for the classic love story and amazing visuals has no business sitting in the theater. There is a reason James Cameron is a brilliant director and absolutely deserving of his nomination. It’s because somehow he just knows what an audience will respond to. He is a great story-teller with an eye for mind-blowing innovation. When Jake Sully flies on that big damn bird for the first time, it took my breath away. Sometimes the movies by-pass all your defenses and just get to you. “Avatar” got to me. And when people complain about it, I tell them to wait until the next “Transformers” debacle comes out, then go back and see “Avatar” again. I think you’ll realize that some movies do it right (“Avatar,” “Star Trek”) and some movies are terrible (“Transformers,” “Wolverine,” the list goes on). And that’s that.

#4 - In the Loop

4. In the Loop – Based on the British TV series, “The Thick of It,” this is hands-down the funniest movie of the year. And maybe the smartest. It’s the first few years of our new century. Peter Capaldi and Tom Hollander work for the British government, and when Hollander’s character states publicly that war in the middle-east is “unforeseeable,” it sets everyone off, including the Americans, who are working with Parliament at what could maybe unofficially be the exact opposite purposes. The film becomes a international farce as a cast of at least a dozen major players connives, deceives and finagles (look it up, bitches) every other character through bloody gums, secret committees, and a sea of the funniest profanity you’ve ever heard. David Mamet, the torch can now be passed with confidence. There is nothing better than biting, satirical bureaucratic humor. And there’s no greater bureaucracy than the United States government. For the best example of what I mean and my favorite scene in the movie, check out James Gandolfini as a US General, using a child’s talking calculator to explain how many troops we’d need for an invasion. It will make you cry with laughter.

#3 - UP

3. Up – It’s the end of the year, it must be time for me to remind everyone how great Pixar is and how it deserves to win Best Animated Feature as well as Best Original Screenplay (not that that would EVER be allowed, but still). There is an extended sequence early on in “Up” that wordlessly takes us through the entire life of a couple. It caught me so by surprise. I cry every time I see it. It’s my favorite part of the film, not because anything after it isn’t completely brilliant itself, but because that sequence moved me like few sequences ever have. It is perfect. It shows a deep, truly loving marriage sustained not by flawless circumstances or the achievement of every dream, but by a commitment to another that is eternal. Without that sequence, there isn’t much cause, really, for Carl’s adventure. It’s the weight of the thing he lost that compels him. It’s his grief that has made him lose sight of the truth. The rest of the movie is delightful and moving and exciting and the ending – oh the ending is really perfect, don’t you think?

#2 - Inglourious Basterds

2. Inglourious Basterds – It was in this way that the movies themselves saved the world. That’s essentially the heart of the matter for Quentin Tarantino. In another life, he’d have been a great playwright, and that knowledge sneaks into his writing so that we are given a small number of long, intricate scenes with people who have objectives and goals and desires and beliefs and must discuss something with or find out something from someone else right now, and in that way his films feel like real life. Do I think the movie short-changed us on actual awesome action? Yes I do. That’s why it’s number 2. That’s its punishment. But the creation of Hans Landa, as played by one Christoph Waltz, will go down as one of the most important, exciting characters in cinema history. And, in the movie, world history. Again we have an opening scene that is the best thing in the film. Truly marvelous. And the way Tarantino connects his three story-lines for the climax, makes them matter for each group of people, makes each central figure – Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine, Melanie Laurant’s Shoshanna, and Waltz’s Landa – a focused, driven basterd in their own right, well, it’s really compelling stuff. But seriously, what is f***in’ BJ Novak doing on my screen at the end?

#1 - Up in the Air

1. Up in the Air – Writer/director Jason Reitman is the filmmaker I’m most excited about. He has a very accessible sensibility that also maintains an artistic angle to his stories. Here he finds three actors who all hit for the cycle and create characters with very different points of view who aren’t simply on-screen to argue with each other. Every character affects the way the others view things. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, another of his efficient, capable men whose self-worth is tied solely to his vocation. Here, he fires people for a living. His company makes him take on Natalie (my future wife [pipe dreams, people, pipe dreams], Anna Kendrick). She’s young and wants to fire people via, essentially iChat. Vera Farmiga (can I have two future wives?) is the career-woman Bingham falls for. The interactions between the characters take center stage, and it is rare to see a movie this smart and adult and moving be so entertainingly re-watchable.

Reitman also manages to make a movie that is about our times without getting trapped in them. His film is about every single person on screen. Researching for the film, he found real people willing to discuss losing their jobs. They are seen in a few different segments throughout the film, and what struck me was how the movie allowed me to care about every one of them, a dozen or so people, even though they were only on screen a few brief moments. That empathy and human truth drives the film, and I love its ambiguous ending. We’ve seen Clooney’s character have to rethink his personal philosophy. That’s the easy part. Now what does he do?

For these and so many other reasons, “Up in the Air” is the best film of the year.

Busy

It’s been over two weeks since I’ve written anything. I’m writing this as I wind down from a run – something else I haven’t been doing with as much frequency as I’d like. Turns out having a 40-hr/week job cuts into the free time.

Between writing (as in screenwriting) and rehearsals for a short film that may have just fallen through or may have just gotten much better – in one of two ways – and working and driving to work and trying to finish Infinite Jest (I promise no David Foster Wallace tangents tonight) and catching up with all the big Oscar nominees in theaters (“Crazy Heart” and “A Single Man” are both good but not great) and on DVD/Netflix (“The Girlfriend Experience,” “Humpday” and especially “In the Loop” are all really good. The latter-most being so good it makes me angry and exhilarated how much I want to emulate it) and movie nights on Saturdays w/ friends Tyler and Josh (this week: anti-V-Day with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” and “American Beauty”) and then little annoying things like taxes and bills and sleeping – between all these things, I have so little time to blog it’s not even funny. I had to finish an article for “It’s Just Movies” at work today (read it here).

The Man I Want to Be…?

All that’s to say, it’s been a long start to the year. Which is fine. It’s also been good. My temporary position at the Insurance company is going to extend into March, which means more money in the bank for after it ends. I have to keep telling myself that my bank account balance only looks big, and that it won’t last once the job ends. There’s still the chance of moving into a full-time position, but it would be back out in the field doing the inspections instead of in the office. Listening to the field adjusters when they come into the office reminds me of all the things I don’t miss about that position. They’re all so incredibly stressed out and angry and bitter. The worst moment of recognition is this low-voiced swearing every time the phone rings. What was once an innocuous ring-tone becomes a unending nightmare of stupid people asking annoying questions that waste your time and eat your soul.

The thing is this: when you’re a field adjuster, your job doesn’t just follow you home, it takes over your home. When you eat the same place you work at a job you don’t like, boundaries get blurred and things can get internally destructive. Right now, I’m super-busy at work. But when I leave, I’m gone. It’s humanly impossible for me to work without being at the office, and for me that may be a necessity. If they offer me a field position I may try it out again. But I’m better outside of work when my workplace is the office. Today my boss let me know that some Temp people have stayed on for over nine months, even though their position was supposed to be up after two or three or six. That’s my preference. I’m not tied to the company, I can explore other options, but I also have some temporary stability.

And now I have to go hang out with my roommate.

#6 – Rachel Getting Married

She puts the FUN in Dysfunctional Family

She puts the FUN in Dysfunctional Family

I really love everything about this movie. I love that Anne Hathaway proves that she isn’t just Princess Diaries (also I have a proper sexual crush on her, just in general), and can handle a complex character. She plays Kym , out of rehab for the weekend to attend her sisters wedding. The film is about this wedding with this family, with their history. It has all of the ingredients of a stuffy melodrama, but writer Jenny Lumet and director Jonathan Demme find their way around some potential pitfalls. Instead of making a claustrophobic picture where we’re trapped with 5 or 6 characters in a house talking about the tragedies of their lives,, the film is incredibly free. To say that Demme’s camera meanders would be incorrect. The cinematography feels organic, it is interested in everyone it sees, and it follows them for a while, leaving behind just the main family. There is an extended sequence at the rehearsal dinner, where character after character stand up and talk for a moment. Probably 15 or so of them. Most of these characters never speak again. But this is not wasted time. The movie is about the largeness of family and a wedding and about the dynamic of all these people being gathered at one time. There are musicians constantly playing in the background, and they provide the film’s score. There are absolutely emotional moments, and dramatic payoffs, but they aren’t where you would expect them. They sneak up on you, and the film earns them. This movie just feels true.

#9 – Milk

This film is a revelation of sorts. It’s been a while since director Gus Van Sant has shown us this kind of dazzling narrative, which includes stock footage which blends perfectly with the drama, and strong, clear writing. Ever since “Good Will Hunting” he’s been much more experimental, and the results have ranged from hauntingly brilliant (“Elephant”) to the downright uninteresting (“Last Days”). I’m glad he’s back. The other revelation is Sean Penn. We’re so used to seeing him brooding and angry, and here he embodies Harvey Milk with such joy and life, and it acts as a shockwave for the audience. The story is of Harvey Milk, narrated by himself, sitting at a kitchen table, recording his obituary, in some of the most poignant and simple powerful moments of the film. Harvey is gay. He wants equal rights. And he is willing to fight for them. The movie’s core is activism, and it was inspiring to see so many DOING instead of just talking. It was horrifying to see a “Christian” stand up and say that homosexuals should not be allowed to be teachers, or hold any position of prominence. If you are like me and you are a Christian who has long wondered just how the two sides came to hate each other so much, how the divide got so large, you may send a post-marked thank-you card to Anita Bryant. 

Got Activism?

Got Activism?

Some of the supporting performances are splendid – James Franco in particular – and some are just awful – my man Emile Hirsch sadly belongs to this camp. The movie moves too quickly with its introductions of characters and Dan White isn’t really approached with anything remotely resembling subtlety, but the film is powerful because of Penn’s performance, Van Sant’s direction, and the writing of Dustin Lance Black. And it is possible to respect the film without agreeing with it wholeheartedly.

Frost/Nixon

 

TV vs Stage vs Film vs History

TV vs Stage vs Film vs History

The material that makes up this particular piece of art represents one of the most unique challenges for me to write about. “Frost/Nixon” the film has just opened, was directed by Ron Howard and stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. If these actors are not household names of cinema, it may make a little more sense to learn that they originated the material on stage, the medium it was created for by writer Peter Morgan. It started in London and transferred to New York on Broadway. That was where I first saw it, in the summer of 2007.

So now I have the rare perspective of having seen the same actors performing the same material as the same characters on both the stage and screen. Which is better, you might reasonably inquire? That is what I wondered and still wonder.

In the journal I kept on that trip to New York City, I wrote to myself that the play did not quite have the power I had expected it to and that Michael Sheen, whose acting I had loved onscreen in 2006’s “The Queen,” made the fatal error of over-gesturing. He cycled through them over and over, and the performance rang of inexperience and actor trickery (something I know a little about myself, I will admit). But it was the play’s writing that most offended me. It made abundant use of one of the most tiresome theatrical conventions, in which a minor character continually broke the fourth wall to give us plot updates, usually during scene changes. Dreadful lines like, “We were about to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had!” were delivered with all the subtlety of machine gun fire next to your ear. Ouch.

It was to my immense surprise, therefore, that both Sheen and the entire supporting cast were handled so much better in the film. Sam Rockwell plays the character, James Reston, and his asides are translated into interview style, direct-addresses to the camera. Also wise is the decision to allow more than just Reston a voice. Both camps are represented, which also provides slightly more balance than the play gives. In the play, you feel perpetually off-center, because it is narrated by someone you care little about, and about a man kept always at a distance. By giving Nixon’s people more of a voice, it inflates the scope of the film, and raises more questions about how we may perceive Nixon himself by the end. And Sheen seems so much more comfortable on camera than onstage. His gestures are more contained, he trusts stillness more, and the movement he does choose is grounded in purpose and intention, instead of fear from the total exposure that is live theatre (I do not know if he was nervous, it could easily have been that I saw the evening show after a matinee. The man could simply have been tired).

But for all that, Ron Howard manages to do what he always does and that is to say that he makes a Ron Howard movie. I cannot quite put my finger on the problem, except to say that his films have a way, in my opinion, of overlooking the acting and story that they are supposed to be capturing. There is something inherently bulky and bloated about the way his shots are arranged, especially now. My favorite film of his is, hands down, “Apollo 13,” because unlike most of his films, it feels authentic. But in movies like “Cinderella Man” and even a movie I mostly like, “A Beautiful Mind” there seems a lack of specificity to his movies and the way he captures performances.

And speaking of performances, Frank Langella. It’s a very good performance in the film. You can tell that Langella knows his character; is his character. It is everything that good acting should be. And yet. As solid as his big moments were in the film, they were dynamic on the stage. He has a monologue at the end, in which he is making his apology. Howard shoots it tight, he bludgeons us with closeup, closeup, closeup. It still works, it’s still effective, but on stage! Oh, on stage, Langella’s voice was barely a whisper, like he was afraid to say the words too loudly. The distance drew us in all the more. It was mesmerizing. It was crystal clear, I caught every single word, even from nearly the back of the theatre. The crowd was so completely silent. There was no music underscoring it. Just two men in chairs, one speaking, one listening. Ladies and Gentlemen… Theatre.

So how do you decide which is better, when more people are better in the film, but the lead actor is better on stage? Which is the better way to view a piece of dramatic art? IS there a better way, or maybe just a different way? Since you obviously can’t go back in time and see the play, you should do yourself a favor and see the film. For it’s flaws, it is inherently fascinating subject matter; very similar in fact, to Gus Van Sant’s film “Milk,” another true story, in which knowing the ending actually increases the effectiveness of the film. 


It Has Come to This

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